22 October 2018
The recent decisions of two women to retire at the next Federal election have put something of a spotlight on the Liberal Party. For longer than I can remember, the Liberals have been accused of having an anti-woman culture. Critics cite the fact that the Liberals don’t have “quotas” or targets for a minimum number of women MPs as evidence of bias against women.
I’m not sure about that. The Liberals always insist on choosing election candidates on merit rather than gender, or other physical characteristics, but they often seem to field men as candidates in winnable or safe seats at election time. At least that often looks like the case.
The Labor Party, on the other hand, aimed long ago to allocate a certain proportion of winnable seats to women. And invariably we see more female MPs in the Labor ranks than the Liberal ranks. Mind you, many women ending up in parliamentary seats seem no better than the men around them, and some women are worse.
But there have been women, on both sides of politics, winning seats from sitting men, sometimes against expectations, and proving to be very good MPs. At times, such has been their effectiveness that their parties have lost seats without them.
In terms of the two Liberal women deciding to retire at the next Federal election, Julia Banks and Ann Sudmalis, I think that their seats could fall without them.
Certainly I don’t believe that the Liberals can hold Chisholm, which Banks gained from Labor at the last election, in 2016. Located in eastern Melbourne, Chisholm has been something of a swinging seat. Banks won it when Labor MP Anna Burke retired, while Burke herself won it when Liberal MP Michael Wooldridge departed to contest another seat in 1998. In fact, Banks was the only Liberal candidate from that 2016 election to gain a seat from Labor. With the Liberals ultimately winning the election by one seat, could Banks have been their saviour?
As for the seat of Gilmore, in southern New South Wales, Sudmalis won it in 2010, upon the retirement of a Liberal MP who’d won it from Labor in 1996.
However, in terms of how the Liberals deal with women in their ranks, Sudmalis should talk her predecessor in Gilmore, Joanna Gash. I think that Gash definitely would’ve said something about an anti-woman culture if she’d sensed it.
In fact, the mention of Gash makes me think of a number of Liberal women whose ability to win at election time had much to do with the success of John Howard, who led the Liberals to a thumping win over Labor in 1996 and was Prime Minister for eleven years.
When Howard won in 1996, among the new Liberal MPs gaining seats from Labor were eleven women – or a cricket team of women, which could be an appropriate description because of Howard being a big fan of cricket!
The swing against Labor in Howard’s 1996 win was such that thirteen people from the Keating ministry lost their seats. Twelve of those ministerial casualties were men, the exception being parliamentary secretary Mary Crawford in Queensland.
Of those twelve men lost from the Keating ministry, seven lost their seats to Liberal women. Crawford also lost her seat to a Liberal woman, Kay Elson. Another three Liberal women unseated Labor backbenchers, all of whom were men.
Of these eleven Liberal women to unseat Labor MPs in 1996, four were lost at the next election, in 1998. Mind you, more of them were expected to lose in 1998 with voters supposedly coming back to Labor after the 1996 beating. But those Liberal women to survive in 1998 would go on to hold their seats at election after election, and they had a lot to do with Howard’s longevity as PM.
Gash was one of seven Liberal women to gain seats from Labor in 1996 and then hold their seats at subsequent elections. As such, I have no qualms about calling them a kind of “magnificent seven”, as far as Liberal women MPs go.
Apart from Gash, Jackie Kelly and Danna Vale came from NSW. Teresa Gambaro was from Queensland, as was Elson. The other Liberal women to mention in this context are Fran Bailey from Victoria and Trish Draper from South Australia.
Three of these women held their seats beyond 2007, when Howard lost an election, whereas the departure of three more of them saw Labor win their seats. Gambaro was the only woman to be defeated, in 2007.
The questions about women in Liberal ranks always make me think hard about those magnificent seven women from Howard’s time. Had they felt uneasy, they would’ve spoken up and embarrassed Howard. But he looked after them. Those days, however, seem distant when Liberals face questions about women now.